New York's capacity to handle wastewater has improved dramatically over the last several decades, but sewage discharges are still a common occurrence; year-round tests of the waters off of Brooklyn's beaches have revealed notable levels of bacteria.
But the scale of this most recent discharge is unusual. One of five pumps at the North River Wastewater Treatment Plant in Harlem caught fire unsuspiciously Wednesday, and took firefighters four hours to bring under control. During that time, the plant stopped treating the 120 million gallons of sewage it handles on average daily—it can handle as much as 340 million gallons on a rainy day—and diverted it instead to 56 pipes that empty into the Harlem and Hudson rivers. “This is giving us a picture of what it was like four decades ago,” one environmental advocate told the broadsheet. Yuck!